Book review: “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” by Michael Lewis

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Book review: “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” by Michael Lewis

Some books are like a lot of magazine articles and newspaper stories. They are so rooted in a present moment that, in the long run, they don’t stand up. Circumstances shift; suppositions are exploded.

Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, published in 2003, is one of those books.

lewis.moneyball

It’s an interesting historical document, one that not only recorded a moment in the evolution of major league baseball but also helped nudge that evolution forward.

Twelve years after the publication of Moneyball, it’s impossible to read about baseball or watch coverage on television or the Internet without being aware of the numbers revolution that has occurred. On-base percentage, WHIP (walks and hits per inning), WAR (wins above replacement) and dozens of other arcane but useful statistics are gathered and discussed today with a religious fervor.

Moneyball helped make that occur.

When published, the book was a sort of manifesto for an analytical approach to the game, and, like all manifestos, it over-stated its case.

Billy Beane

Billy Beane

Moneyball tells the story of the Oakland A’s and their general manager Billy Beane, a can’t-miss prospect who could and did miss and then, at the helm of one of the poorest franchises in the majors, found amazing success.

No question that Beane is brilliant and successful — just not as brilliant and not as successful as Lewis makes him out to be.

 

Drafting by the numbers

A good hunk of the book is spent in describing Oakland’s moves in the 2002 draft of amateur players for which the team had an unprecedented seven picks in the first round. Much is made in the book about how Beane used analytical tools to select players, most of whom were perceived by the rest of major league baseball as having little or no value.

There’s a swashbuckling verve to Beane’s approach to that draft, mirrored in Lewis’s prose. Yet, as delighted as the general manager is with his picks in the draft and as excited as Lewis is to tell about the process, the results turned out to be pretty mediocre.

An ESPN.com story prepared in 2011 — just as the movie version of Moneyball (with Brad Pitt starring as Beane) was about to hit the theaters — showed that three of the seven first-round draft picks never saw a day in the majors. A fourth — Jeremy Brown, a slow but good-hitting catcher, highly touted by Beane to the amusement of the rest of baseball  — only got 11 plate appearances.

One of the seven, Mark Teahan, had a seven-year career as a utility player, recording a WAR of 2.4 (meaning that, for the sum of his career, his play had given his teams a total gain of a little more than two runs over what they would have gotten from an average player in Teahan’s position).

The first two of the A’s picks — both of which were widely sought by other teams and both of whom are still playing — have fared much better in the majors. Pitcher Joe Blanton, the team’s second pick, has a WAR of 9.7, while the WAR for outfielder Nick Swisher, Oakland’s first selection, is 22.3.

Those are decent numbers, but nowhere near star levels. One thousand major leaguers have had WARs of more than 26.0. (Longtime Los Angeles Angels manager, Mike Scioscia, a former catcher, had a 26.0 WAR and is tied for 998th place with two others.)

Jerry Crasnick, who wrote the ESPN story, noted, “The mixed bag of results is more a testament to the draft than Oakland’s approach.” Trying to evaluate amateur talent in high school and college is a dicey proposition.

The bottom line, though, is that the Oakland approach was no parting of the seas. Like other teams, the A’s had hits and misses, even with their analytical approach.

Lewis writes that Beane and his aides were “reinventing” baseball in the 2002 draft by ignoring the organization’s scouts and drafting based solely on the numbers. That, however, has changed, as Crasnick wrote: “The franchise’s evaluation pendulum has shifted back toward scouts and placed a little less emphasis on the stat-heavy approach in recent years.”

 

Hubris

Throughout Moneyball, there are disconcertingly emotional assertions from Lewis and those he quotes that Beane and other sabermetricians like him are brilliant and everyone else in baseball is stupid.

Undoubtedly, as Lewis shows, baseball executives were very slow to come to the analytical approach. Very slow. Okay, that bred a lot of frustration in people like Bill James, the foremost voice in the analytical field, and others like him.

Yet, it becomes unseemly at times, such as during the 2002 draft day when Lewis paraphrases Beane’s thoughts:

But then no one has any idea what either the Detroit Tigers or the Milwaukee Braves, who pick seventh and eighth, intend to do. Something not terribly bright, it was a fair bet, if they just continued doing what they had done in the past.

This sort of arrogance would be hard to stomach from anyone, no matter how successful. And the twelve years since Moneyball was published have shown that Beane and his A’s haven’t been as successful as their hubris would suggest.

Beane took over the club in 1996, and, for four years, the A’s missed the postseason. Then, in 2000, around the time he and his aides began crunching numbers in a deep way, the team finished first and reached the playoffs — and lost in the American League Division Series (ALDS).

The same thing happened in 2001, 2002 and 2003. They finished first or second in the West — and lost in the ALDS.

They missed the playoffs in 2004 and 2005, but were again in first place at the end of the 2006 season. This time, they won the ALDS — but lost the American League Championship Series (ALCS).

Then, for five years running, they weren’t good enough to get into the postseason.

Finally, in 2012, they came in first — and lost in the ALDS. The same thing happened in 2013.

Last year, the A’s, finishing second, got into the Wild Card game — and lost.

 

Sample size

What all that means is that, since 2000, Beane’s team has missed the playoffs about half the time (7 of 15 seasons). In its eight trips to the postseason, the team has been ousted in the first round every time, but once. That one ALDS victory came to naught, however, when the A’s lost the championship series.

To borrow a phrase from the sabermetricians, that’s a pretty good sample size.

It shows the A’s to be a fairly successful regular season team, especially when you consider that Beane doesn’t have a great amount of money to pay players to put on the field. (He has a lot more than he used to, however, because, like other small-market teams, the A’s have been beneficiaries of Major League Baseball’s revenue-sharing program, in place in its present form since 2002.)

When it comes to the playoffs, Oakland, even with Beane’s brilliance and his analytical breakthroughs, is a bust. It has been 26 years since the team has won a World Series, and 25 years since it’s played in one.

In the context of Oakland’s ALDS loss in 2002, Moneyball attempts to address this pattern:

The postseason partially explained why baseball was so uniquely resistant to the fruits of scientific research, to any purely rational idea about how to run a baseball team. It wasn’t just that the game was run by old baseball men who insisted on doing things as they had always been done.

It was that the season ended in a giant crapshoot. The playoffs frustrate rational management because, unlike the long regular season, they suffer from the sample-size problem.

In other words, in any five- or seven-game series, luck plays too much of a role in the outcome. There’s no way, as Beane and Lewis see it, to rationalize a team’s approach.

 

What’s most efficient

Perhaps this goes to the heart of baseball and other sports. They are played by human beings. The luck that occurs on the field is created, with few exceptions, by the actions of human beings.

Human beings are also responsible for the flood of money that inundates pro sports through TV revenue, paid attendance, merchandizing and everything else.

Today, through Moneyball and the weight of more than a decade of reporting, the average fan can appreciate the skill involved in working the count, the importance of drawing a walk and the significance of WHIP.

But, really, they love to see a booming home run, even by a guy with a low on-base percentage. They love to see a stolen base, even if it seems, by the numbers, to be counter-productive. They love for their team to win it all.

It might be argued that this is irrational. That a fan should accept what’s most efficient rather than what’s most flashy. That a fan should be satisfied with a team that grinds out its wins in the regular season and tanks in the playoffs.

I’m not sure about that. I am sure that I’m glad I’m not an Oakland A’s fan.

Patrick T. Reardon
8.10.15

4 Comments

  1. Gary Krukar says:

    Amen, my friend. Nicely thought out–I refrain from using the term “analyzed.” Keep reading and writing’em, you do it well!
    Gary

    • Patrick T. Reardon says:

      Thanks, Gary. It helped that I had 12 years of perspective on this. Even so, as much as I like math, the math guys are a little too dismissive of real-life analysis.

  2. John Camper says:

    Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson combined for 56 wins for the A’s in 2001 and 57 in 2002. They were scouted by the stupid old non-mathematical geezers Lewis disparages, and they’re barely mentioned in his book.

    • Patrick T. Reardon says:

      Yup. I give Beane credit for putting out fairly successful teams, but the arrogance that he and Lewis show toward the non-mathematical geezers is unwarranted. As I point out in the review, Oakland’s record under Beane is only OK.

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